A different way
With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that the material possessions, so valued by Europeans as a mark of success, were an unnecessary and largely irrelevant encumbrance in nomadic society. Acquisition of personal property and, indeed, any material objects, was a restriction on movement. Success in daily living was achieved by maximizing simplicity and energy conservation: absolute parsimony rather than material accumulation.
The ability to survive and flourish from day to day using the simplest technology indicated a total mastery of the immediate physical environment including the vagaries of climate and seasons and the subtle interaction between plants, animals and the land.
Energy was conserved through a lifestyle that was in tune with the seasonal cycles of food production, taking advantage of energy sources when the opportunity arose, minimizing unnecessary and unenjoyable expenditure of energy in labour-intensive activities like building and construction, and carrying. Aboriginals were so well adapted to the environment that they were able to thrive in regions considered totally inhospitable to the white settlers. Explorer Eyre noted: ‘In the arid, barren, naked plains of the north, with not a shrub to shelter him from the heat, not a stick to burn for his fire (except what he carried with him), the native is found’  and that there were no localities ‘. . . however sterile and inhospitable they might appear to the traveller, that do not hold out some inducements to the bordering savage to visit them, or at the proper seasons of the year provide him with the means of sustenance.” Land regarded as harsh and inhospitable, sending explorers Burke and Wills to their death was, for Aboriginals, a comfortable and productive home.
The European state of being civilized through being ‘settled’ and ‘domesticated’ was as curious to Aboriginals as their apparently aimless ‘wandering’ in wild nature was to the Europeans who did not understand that going ‘walkabout’ was akin to a religious pilgrimage. Aboriginals saw themselves as part of the landscape, physically and spiritually: they did not make the distinction between culture and landscape so evident to European sensibilities.
The Aboriginal response to excessive demand on resources was to decrease demand by population control, this sometimes entailed infanticide. The European way of dealing with lack of food and raw materials was to increase supply, simply avoiding population control and accessing more resources. Far from being malnourished it is now recognized that in many parts of Australia (especially along the Murray and Riverina, in Arnhemland, and most of Tasmania) Aboriginals enjoyed an ample and varied food supply and plenty of leisure time for ceremony and ritual (which contrasted starkly with the early settlers’ daily rations of salted meat, flour, tea, sugar and rum) . For part of the year the plant diet consisted of a wide range of greens, nuts, and fruits together with, as we now know, the extremely healthy meat of the kangaroo and other animals together with a wide range of seafood on the coast. There is no reason to think calories and protein intake poor and, as with many other hunter-gatherers, deficiency diseases were not a problem. Many foods are a matter of acquired taste, they are what we have become used to, whether this be caviar, artichoke, or ginger. Plants which to English botanist Joseph Hooker were ‘eatable but not worth eating’ could have been delicacies to the Aboriginals. But Aboriginals survived in plenty where explorers Burke and Wills had died of exposure, fatigue and hunger. A harsh environment to Europeans was perceived as benign to Aboriginals. The variety of foods known and used far exceeded the few meats, cereals, greens and fruits available to the vast majority of citizens either in Europe’s great cities or the rural peasantry of the eighteenth century and before.
Nakedness was a matter of physical comfort in such a climate and generally warm Australia obviously called for few if any clothes. The European needed clothes not only as protection from the European climate but as a symbol of social status. The needs of food, shelter, health protection from the elements were amply met. Furs and animal skins were worn when the temperature demanded it. Perhaps questionable European sexual sensibilities were at play here. Compare nakedness with the absurdly uncomfortable and climatically inappropriate ceremonial military uniforms worn by the British elite.
Civilized societies and their cities brought their own set of problems: epidemic disease; often a subjugated and mistreated slave class and extreme disparities in wealth and material welfare.
Though it was clear that Aboriginal life was no idyllic paradise, could it be that the unthinkable had occurred . . . that, in spite of the uncertainties and discomforts, here was a people that was accepting of what it had, in the sense that they felt no need, urge, or necessity for the ‘improvement’ or ‘progress’ that was so much a part of European life – their life was enough as it was. European concern with Aboriginal lack of industry can be viewed in converse. What is it about the European that is so mentally unsettled, so driven, so obsessed with progress and improvement, so set on a growth and prosperity that must never end and never be resolved to a state of social and political satisfaction? Sociologist Max Weber described this drive as ‘The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’.
In spite of the undoubted physical discomforts the Aboriginals had physical advantages. Dark skin protects against ultraviolet radiation, radiates excess heat and resists sunburn and skin cancer. Although both modern and ancient Aboriginals exhibited considerable variability in body shape, overall their lean bodies and thin legs assisted energy conservation, acting as a form of thermo-regulation in hot, dry conditions. (Flood, pp. 186-188)
From this account it is clear that Aboriginal life, while deeply spiritual, was also grounded firmly in the physical objects of the natural world around them – the daily needs for food, clothing, ornaments, hunting implements and tools all obtained from local resources or traded materials – essentially stone, bark, timber and earth. None were in quantities likely to impede walking parties, and all were made in accordance with laws established in the Dreaming which reinforced respect for the land and its spirituality. Presence within the landscape of creator-ancestors meant a profound physical and spiritual connection to the natural world on which they depended.
In contrast, early European settlers, for all their technological and scientific expertise, brought with them a religion and belief system that concentrated on a life hereafter in a place totally detached from, and superior to, the physical world here on Earth. Humans were separated from nature which had, in the course of the Agricultural Revolution, become something to be tamed, overcome and exploited – it was not an object of respect.
In 1788, except in a few places, most Europeans were illiterate and learning a privilege. Settlers transformed the landscape according to their general belief system and pre-conceptions concerning land management – by the use of traditional European practices fire, clearing (especially forest), roads, ploughing, irrigating, damming, erecting fences, walls and hedges, building houses and introducing foreign organisms. While the behavioural code of the European settlers, which was grounded in the strictures of Christianity’s Old and New Testaments, was mostly about the way people should relate to one-another, the emphasis of the Dreaming was on how people should relate to the land.
Perhaps the lack of domesticable plants and animals had decreased the probability of agriculture? In the absence of the civilizing influence of agriculture the European felt obliged to raise what they regarded as backward savages into a civilized way of being. This was usually attempted by encouraging the adoption of morally uplifting European customs through a European education (especially for the children), generally in a Christian Mission.
Government by a group of Elders so puzzling to Europeans could be interpreted as a far more mature system of government, akin to true democracy, in contrast to the autocratic and absolutist systems left behind by the Europeans.
As Professor Blainey has said, It is tempting to praise or condemn the practices and restraints used by Aboriginals but their and our values are ephemeral because they arise from necessities and background of different societies. 
One group of people saw a landscape that was sufficient as it was, a life-support system rich in spirituality, a rich and beautiful land bearing the signatures and physical manifestations of ancestry back to the dawn of time: it was a heritage to be carefully managed and protected. The other people arrived seeking profit and political advantage; they saw harshness – an inhospitable environment, and human poverty. Once on the land, they set out to tame it, control it, and improve it. To the European the desire to preserve things as they were seemed like a stultifying conservatism, a complacency that was holding back beneficial change.
We perhaps see in the European a kind of spiritual impoverishment: a world of lesser meaning, significance and intensity. Though scientific explanations need in no way diminish the wonder and mystery of the world around us, it does seem that someone viewing vegetation from a train window would be much less sensitized to this world than an Aboriginal standing within a landscape of Creator-spirits and the spirits of their human ancestors, manifest through the features of the landscape and the organisms that live there. The two worlds are not at heart so different, but the former seems for most people to lack colour and engagement.
Today it is possible to see the European relationship with the land as profoundly dysfunctional and mistaken, part of the supreme arrogance that prompted the hubristic dismissal of Aboriginal culture and the mistreatment of its people. Is this a form of disconnection, the detachment of science and the intervention of culture that has distanced Western society from its roots in nature? Should this be of any concern? In setting a course for the future we can also assess the past and consider alternatives (see Aboriginal legacy).
Aboriginal culture is prone to accusations of cultural conservatism, primarily in relation to the acceptance of new technology and ideas. However, there are certainly grounds for a similar claim against Europeans in relation to land management. After 225 years of occupation the many environmental issues confronting ‘western’ culture indicate that Europeans have still not learned to work with nature rather than trying to ‘overcome’ it. There has been no acceptance of native plants as food, the seasonal calendar of winter, spring, summer and autumn so inappropriate for many parts of Australia remains in use. Because the settlers regarded their new environment as ‘harsh’ and ‘poor’ it seems that the vegetation was regarded in a similar way, simply passing over the fact that in sheer numbers of unique and different kinds Australia has an extremely rich palette of about 25,000 species compared to the relatively poor British flora of some 2,700 species. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the environmentally alienated perception (still evident) of harshness, poverty, and topsy-turvyness so often attributed to the Australian environment is the consequence of the conservative European lens through which it was and is viewed and a disappointment with plants that cannot be harvested on a commercial scale.
Anthropologists have pointed out how much cultural identity is tied up in food, not only the kinds that are eaten, the way they are cooked and the social rituals that are associated with them.
Inevitably, as Aboriginal culture was progressively crippled and absorbed into settler lifestyles, it changed from a seasonally varied diet into fewer foods from fixed localities, for many becoming a Mission diet of sugar, flour and tea and there are reports of Aboriginals finding the flavours of European foods, too sweet and strong – even throwing bread loaves away. tobacco and European alcohol were certainly enjoyed.